Posted by: bkivey | 15 July 2010

A Failure of Leadership

It’s no secret that the mood in the country may fairly be described as pessimistic. Apprehension and malaise grip the citizenry in the face of a seemingly constant high unemployment rate, a string of natural and man-made disasters, and a parade of scapegoats trotted out by officials elected and appointed. Add to that the economic and political ascendency of China and the outright economic failure of some Western democracies and the conditions are ripe for hesitancy and self-doubt. 

In tough times people look for strong leadership and affirmation of their abilities; something that is taught in business school and realized by every successful manager, be they coaching a team or running a business.  It’s human nature to want to believe in something greater than themselves, that someone or something has a plan that will lead to the realization of clearly defined goals. 

The job of a leader is to lead; to have a clear vision, concrete goals and a plan for achieving them. People will follow a person with a strong committment to a vision and a compelling argument for achieving that vision. If that vision is congruent with the core beliefs of a people or organization then people will feel a greater affinity for the leader and be that much more willing to buy into the vision. 

Leadership is not synonymous with control. A good leader recognizes that their job is to provide a framework for success. Once the vision has been articulated and the goals set the competent leader will get the hell out of the way and let people excel while providing the support necessary for success in accordance with the Second Rule of Management. The leader has to lead, but be seen as part of the team. An effective leader knows that success rests not on them but on the efforts of others; their job is to direct people’s best efforts toward the realization of articulated goals.  

The competent leader focuses on the future while learning from the mistakes of the past. This is especially true if a leader faces challenges stemming from circumstances beyond their control. People respect the person who can find a way out of a bad situation while providing support to the people in the organization, who knows that people want to be part of success and that they want to feel good about what they’re doing. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have any of that in the current Executive or Legislative branches. What we have is endless recriminations and scapegoating, exemplified by the Finger-Pointer-in-Chief. People don’t respect that type of behaviour, especially when practiced by a putative leader. There are some folks who take pleasure in that sort of behaviour, but it’s petty and immature and it’s certainly not leadership.  Neither is the narcissism of the person who believes that only they have the answers to problems and everyone else should shut-up and follow their directives without question or explanation. That attitude is insulting and demeaning to the very people that are necessary for success. 

There have been some attempts at comparison between the leadership styles of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and the results in what are said to be similar economic circumstances. Let’s take a look at the numbers

When Reagan took office in January 1981 the unemployment rate was 7.5% and wouldn’t go below that until May 1984. The unemployment rate went above 9% in March 1982, and above 10% in September 1982 where it stayed until June 1983 and fell below 9% in November 1983. 

At the time Obama took office in January 2009 the unemployment rate was 7.6%. The rate topped 9% in May 2009 and was above 10% from October 2009 to December 2009. As of June 2010 the national unemployment rate is 9.5% and is projected to remain around that level through January 2011. 

Just on the numbers it appears that the recession during Reagan’s first term was at least as bad as the one during Obama’s term. I was a senior in high school when Reagan took office and as I recall the mood of the country was even more depressed than it is now. We weren’t too far removed from the oil price shocks of the early 70’s, we’d lost Vietnam, a President had resigned in disgrace, our embassy in Tehran had been overrun and people taken hostage, we’d lost people and equipment in a fiasco in the Iranian desert, and were suffering under high inflation and low economic growth as the Soviets appeared poised to take over the world. The feeling was that we as a people had lost our way and couldn’t do anything right. 

Jimmy Carter had exacerbated the situation by blaming Americans for their problems, citing a ‘national malaise’ and telling people that they should quit whining, without offering a positive vision or indeed any sort of plan for success. Contrast that with Reagan’s approach of reaffirming the positive qualities of America and offering a clear. positive vision and a plan for getting from where we were to where we wanted to be. Nearly every major media outlet derided this approach as simplistic and Pollyannish but Reagan was putting the Third Rule of Management into practice. He also demonstrated the Fourth Rule of Management by understanding that no one had forced him to take the job. As a politician he did make references to the failures of his predecessor but what he didn’t do was use those failures as an excuse for, and a detraction from, his own shortcomings. He demonstrated a belief in the American nation and it’s people to do great things and then let them do them. 

Now we are again faced with trying times and our elected leader’s default mode when something goes wrong is to place blame and point fingers. This is petty and immature and is not leadership; this is behaviour that looks to the past rather than shows a way forward. I can’t think of a private sector organization that would tolerate that sort of behaviour from someone in a leadership or management position. People want results, not recriminations; positive action rather than negative rhetoric. 

A mature, free people want to be treated as adults and shown a path to follow that leads to results and affirmation of who they are, not condescended to like helpless children  incapable of making their own decisions and needing someone to protect them.

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